Containerized World and 18 000 TEU Challenges

If News 1/2014 Marine. We have seen a number of container vessels suffering serious incidents and averages during past years; MSC Napoli, Rena, MOL Comfort, Hanjin Pennsylvania, Hyundai Fortune and Amsterdam Bridge to name a few.

​If one combines the perils in the aforementioned averages with the development of 18,000 TEU container vessels all parties involved might start suffering occasional sleepless nights.

Falsely declared cargo, packing and securing

If you were asked to carry goods to a faraway destination and you knew that the voyage is demanding in many ways; long distance, weather conditions vary from light breeze to very heavy storms and you had other goods to carry as well; would you ask the following questions from the party whose goods you are about to carry: what kind of cargo there is in the container, how much and how heavy it is, how the goods are packed and secured and does the cargo react with other goods or substances and if so, in what circumstances.

In a number of major incidents the actual nature of the cargo has been falsely declared. Fireworks, dangerous chemicals and other dangerous goods have been transported as “general cargo”. And sometimes in order to save money e.g. at customs – as in many countries customs duties depend on weight of the goods – the weight of the goods has been declared far less than the actual weight. 

As if this was not bad enough the packing and securing of the cargo in some cases has been even against the applicable international laws and regulations. Overweight containers have undoubtedly caused stack collapses, vehicle overturning at terminals and ports and in the extreme weathers these containers have been partly to blame for a loss of a ship.

Fire on-board

There have been significant fire casualties on board container vessels: MSC Amsterdam Bridge, MSC Flaminia, MOL Comfort, Hansa Brandenburg, Eugen Maersk and Maersk Kampala for example. Fire on board a container vessel is a serious risk, which is extremely difficult to tackle for a number of reasons – one reason being the small number of crewmembers.

The vast size of a container vessel makes it difficult to even notice a potential fire on board. The tight and high stacks of containers combined with the length of an 18 000 TEU vessel (~400 meters) make a vessel rather difficult terrain. After actually noticing that a fire is about to break loose, crew has very little means to put off the fire.

Portable extinguishing equipment cannot do much and it is extremely dangerous for the crew to act as fire-fighters: the fact that nobody knows exactly what kind of dangerous cargo and how many containers and where on board contain something that might cause an explosion or other reaction results in mission impossible. What is mixed with what? What resulting compounds might have been created? Is there something that has combusted only partly? Is there a possibility of re-ignition?

Port of refuge and salvage operations

The salvage operations are already demanding and difficult with the 10 000 TEU vessels. In the MSC Napoli case the salvage and wreck removal took all in all 924 days. There are a number of factors having impact on this: size of the vessel, condition of the vessel, location and weather and of course the cargo – to name a few. When talking about triple E container ships with possibly 18 000 TEU on-board we face a couple of additional challenges.

Ordinary salvage equipment cannot cope with triple E vessels. Dimensions of such a vessel are far beyond the capabilities of ordinary equipment. And quite frankly the number and availability of heavy salvage equipment is very limited and very seldom within reasonable distance from the location of average.

Very few ports have the ability to handle this kind of vessels and container ports are not capable of handling salvage operations on the side of their everyday business. Actually there is no port in North or South America that could serve triple E vessels. Should there be even a small possibility of having dangerous goods on board, the place of refugee can be difficult to find and a vessel might end up as a modern day “Flying Dutchman”; MSC Flaminia was a close call in this respect.

The solution lies in a box?

These vessels with 18 000 TEU capacity have a good target: improving efficiency and thereby reducing CO2 emissions even by 50% per transported container depending on the comparison. This is all well and a goal worth supporting. But put all the above-mentioned worries on board a vessel like this and we could have a true disaster at hand. Poorly packed, secured and falsely declared cargo (weight, quality, quantity) causing possible structural issues to the vessel in heavy seas or fire on board combined with little or no suitable fire fighting and salvage possibilities is a horrendous image.

When looking back at the casualties a good start for improving safety can be found in the containers themselves. The goods in them have to be properly packed and secured. This must be followed by proper declaration of the goods, weight, quantity and possible dangerous qualities. And to enforce this, containers should be checked prior loading on board an ocean going vessel.

Add new ways of fire fighting systems like CO2 flooding and remote monitoring systems, which can “ignite” a spray wall of water and we would be as safe as one could be in a containerized world. This perfect world scenario is a distant dream, costly and very unlikely to happen. The 18 000 TEU disaster is more likely to materialize - unfortunately I might add.

Kari Koljonen